I have been thinking about this a lot lately.
I think it’s an important part of my past.
Humiliation is the feeling of being deliberately and unfairly treated as a subordinate. I think it’s often done in order to enhance the sense of power and security of the one doing it.
I think child abuse itself can feel humiliating: other children aren’t treated the way you are and usually you know this. I think there are times when this is actually the intent of the abuse–to enhance the parent’s feelings of power and security. The child’s sense of security in the world is an unintended casualty.
Some parents who abuse their children are simply overwhelmed and frustrated. They lose control of themselves, because they lack the repertoire of skills necessary to parent. Other parents are sadistic and intentionally cause harm. Some parents have very destructive means of regulating themselves and the social relationships and humiliation is part of their repertoire: they feel insecure or threatened and respond by degrading someone else, someone who incapable of defending themselves, their own children.
I think a lot of my dad’s abuse was about humiliation. Some of it was sadistic, but other acts of abuse were intended to exact some kind of revenge on society itself in order to enhance his feelings of security and power. I think murdering vulnerable young women was about flouting the norms of society–we protect pretty, fragile girls or at least say we do–in order to make himself feel more powerful and less vulnerable. Revenge, probably, for not protecting him when he himself was vulnerable and fragile. He dismembered their bodies as a form of humiliation: these girls are not even human; their bodies can be treated like the flesh of animals, which we butcher and eat.
I think incest was done to humiliate me as well, and yet I don’t think it was about me. I think I was an object to my dad: I think I stood for something rather than was myself. I don’t think I was myself to him. I think I was women generally, or decent society or even his vulnerable, powerless self whom he blamed for his own childhood mistreatment.
I think rape generally is intended to humiliate: there is a reason men do this to the women of groups they consider to be the enemy. The humiliation a rape survivor feels when remembering the abuse comes from the intentions of the rapist. Human beings have the right to refuse sexual experiences: in taking away your right, it is not because the rapist want the sexual experience so badly, but in order to enhance his own sense of power and security. You remember that later, not because you are degraded as a human being, but because someone intentionally tried to degrade you.
I think as long as we talk about feelings as being stable and eternal, we cannot ever make sense of experiences of abuse. The feeling of being “less than” or without value is not about who you are, but about how someone perceived you in one particular experience.
Humiliation is not always shocking or graphic: the narcissistic parent favours one child over the other in order to humiliate the less favoured child. Only by having someone to compare himself to can the child feel the humiliation. If both children are mistreated, no one feels “less than” anyone else. Sometimes C’s stepfather gives presents to the other children in the family, but not her. What she feels is humiliated, but she has no words for that emotion, nor does she have words for the confusion of being humiliated by someone she ought to feel is on the same side: we humiliate “out groups,” not our own kind. When we humiliate members of our own group, we degrade ourselves, so humiliation presupposes you are not a member of the group humiliating you.
This humiliation can then become something which can’t be talked about or understood or even thought about, but which the person remains alert to as a possible threat. When it comes up, I realize it feels like who I am. It’s possible for me to go through life frantically trying to resist “becoming” this person again: in other words, I might avoid situations where I might be reminded of being humiliated, because I cannot think about humiliation without being consumed by it–because as a child, that is how your social experiences feel. Your self-view in that moment is you, rather than something about the situation.
The thing about this is that any crack in your armour, anything personal or sensitive or unique to you, becomes an opening for an abusive parent to humiliate you.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately: that the stress I react to is nearly any kind of vulnerability: I am most afraid of being treated as someone less than human over having a feeling or a preference of some kind. The more personal and strongly felt, the more intense the threat might seem, with the mistreatment in my childhood perhaps feeling the most sensitive of all.
There is another part to this: remember in my post “Epigenics,” I talked about a stress response making it harder for me to regulate my emotions or organize my responses. So that’s the most frequent trigger for my stress response: some kind of personal vulnerability. Anything at all might be used as ammunition against me, I suppose it must feel.
And a third part to this: I was reading somewhere that good classroom managers have a variety of strategies for managing the same kinds of behaviours, which depend on the motivation and temperament of the student, but poor classroom managers use only a few or even just one strategy to address the same behaviours. I’ve read something similar about people with secure attachments: they have many strategies for regulating themselves. Those with poor attachments have only a few strategies.
I see this as related: my parents probably had few strategies for regulating themselves, which was all they had to knew to teach me, and a lot of these strategies were destructive to relationships. Humiliation was one of them.
It’s not really a surprise that people from abusive backgrounds use abusive self-talk to manage themselves: that’s all they have. But I wonder if it’s easier to expand your repertoire of self-regulating skills than to avoid one in particular. Not that it has to be an either-or, but I wonder if learning new skills ought to be more of a focus when people have traumatic pasts. And I also wonder if people realize we learn new strategies from how people try to regulate our interactions with them. I don’t know, but lots of thoughts.